The Formula 2 points leader made a good impression as he enjoyed an error-free 29-lap run and set the 14th-fastest time on his maiden F1 practice outing at the Red Bull Ring, finishing 1.271s off the pace of Lewis Hamilton’s benchmark time. 

Zhou was handed three runs - the first on Pirelli’s prototype compound - before he completed two on mediums. His best time came in his third and final performance run on low fuel, with the 22-year-old posting a 1m06.414s that was just four-tenths shy of his teammate Esteban Ocon’s fastest lap on the softs. 

That was despite Zhou losing time when he ran slightly wide after suffering a small lock up at Turn 4 when he had to pass Ocon, who was on a cool-down lap. 

Overall, Zhou was delighted with his performance having revealed he felt huge pressure ahead of his debut knowing how many Chinese fans would be tuning in to watch the first driver from mainland China since Ma Qing Hua in 2013 take part in an F1 grand prix weekend. He also knew he could ill-afford to damage the car of his racing hero, Fernando Alonso

“To be honest, I started the week with a lot of pressure on my shoulders, because God knows how many people are watching, especially back home in China,” Zhou said. 

“Everybody’s watching, probably more than the races. So I have to do well and make no mistakes, taking care of Fernando’s car, pushing myself to the limit, not just enjoying myself. So I’ve definitely done that. 

“I was able to push as hard as I would like to have done on the push laps. Comparing to my teammate, I think both on the medium compound, we are almost there, within two tenths. So I'm happy with that - it was a special hour session.”

Zhou turned in an accomplished performance and was able to get through all of Alpine’s run programme, including a practice start to provide the French squad with additional data. 

“I think I adapted quickly to F1,” Zhou added. “We went through all the programmes that the team had set to me, staying on mediums, and to do that lap time on mediums at the end was quite good, still a few mistakes by me, but overall a good lap time.

“We had a lot of data collected, and I did a practice start, not just to give me a better feeling, as we’re limited as a team, so they wanted me to help them by getting more data.

“I was still improving the lap time and every set I was a bit quicker, and on the last set I gave it my all on lap one, where I think the tyres was on its best condition, and we put it together there. 

“Overall I was happy but there’s still improvement definitely.”

Commenting on Zhou’s practice debut, Alpine racing director Davide Brivio said: “He did a very good job, didn’t make any mistakes and put in some competitive lap-times. He can be pleased with his performance and work, and we’re very happy for him.” 

Zhou has previously taken part in a number of test outings for Alpine driving a 2018-spec car, while he also contested the post-season Abu Dhabi test in last year’s RS20. 

But as Zhou explained, the A521 is a completely different beast to what he has been used to.

“Compared to what I drove, the 2018 car, there is a huge difference to the current car,” he said. 

“You have much more downforce, much more speed, acceleration. Obviously, compared to last year’s Abu Dhabi car there is not as much gap. But that car I only drove once so I’m not too familiar with that. And every year we have a different aero package, a little bit different car balance. 

“I was surprised with how much later I have to brake. I was studying a lot the onboard lap of the pole position, of my team-mates the last week to have a good reference straightaway for my first stint. So I started already better than I did in Abu Dhabi last year. 

“It was more natural so I was able to have another step each lap. The power is never easy to adapt to. In Formula 2, it’s a completely different feeling was different tyre grip.” 

Zhou’s hopes of becoming the first full-time Chinese F1 driver took a hit when Alonso announced his return to the Enstone outfit, while Ocon has recently been rewarded with a new long-term deal, leaving little room for a seat at Alpine in the near-future. 

Friday’s FP1 outing boosted Zhou up to 39 points on his superlicence and if he can continue his current F2 form, he will surpass the 40-point minimum required to race in F1, opening the door for potential graduation in 2022. 

But Zhou will have to look beyond Alpine - perhaps at a team like Williams or Alfa Romeo - if he is to make the step up next year. 

Despite keeping his focus fixed on his F2 campaign, Zhou acknowledged that his practice display was an important opportunity to show any potential suitors what he is capable of. 

“I think that was one of the keys of today,” Zhou said. “That’s also one of the reasons there was a lot of pressure before the green flag. 

“I was putting in a lot of work before this free practice and to be honest, it’s more important to be showing my driving skills in the F1 paddock than the fans in China. 

“In general, I was just really happy. We got all the run plans done and also explored the lap time with these medium tyres. It’s a little bit unfortunate I couldn’t get the soft tyres but for me I’m quite happy with that. Hopefully it will give me even more opportunities for the future.

"Right now I’m fully relaxed and feel comfortable in myself and hopefully they are proud of the job I did and it’s only the beginning of my career in F1,” he added. 

“I’m always looking to improve myself as a driver and see what the future brings.”